Pets can form strong emotional bonds with other animals in their household, especially if they grew up together or spent a large chunk of their lives in each other’s company. When a pet loses their companion, oftentimes the owner will witness a change in habits and behavior as they are processing the change. Grief is a natural way for a person to honor those who have passed, so our pets may be doing the same thing. It can be sad to watch your beloved pet endure this journey, but you can act as a support system for each other through the loss of another family fur baby.
Managing loss is an overwhelming task for humans, but when our animals get involved it can be even more difficult to approach. Because we can’t verbally communicate with our pets, we need to utilize other forms of communication to signal that we are offering support and empathize with their pain. Physical touch, acts of service, and quality time are all communicable love languages that you can focus on to be supportive.
The passing of a loved one is a complex time, and the main thing your pet needs from you is the patience to allow them to experience their own grief journey. Every pet will grieve differently, and you know your four-legged friend better than anyone, so monitor their behavior and keep in mind that all they want from you right now is love and affection.
Do Pets Understand Death?
Grief is an intense combination of emotions, behaviors, and thoughts. Grieving the loss of a loved one can be one of the most difficult experiences for a human, but what about our pets? While there is limited information on how various animal species view death, it is a common phenomenon for pet owners to watch their surviving pets grieve over the loss of another animal they care about. In a recent report studying dog behavior, a survey found that more than 80% of dogs that lose a fellow four-legged companion display some combination of grief symptoms. In short, many people theorize about the possibility of pets enduring similar experiences with grief that humans do, but there is not enough information out there to confidently make a conclusion either way.
Will All Pets Experience a Period of Grief?
Just as grief looks different for human beings, grief is a unique experience for pets as well. Not all pets will experience grief, and many may only need time to adjust to the change in their routine. This does not necessarily mean that they didn’t care for the passing animal as much as you once believed, but it is more likely that the surviving pet may not even recognize the change as a death. Oftentimes, pets will display confusion before grief.
Common Signs of Grief in Surviving Pets
If a pet is grieving, they may be communicating their mourning through their actions. Pets will display their grief in a multitude of ways and their response to loss may create an unpredictable shift in their personality. Animals are known to change their behavior when they are processing the loss of a companion, so the most notable sign of grief is simply acting differently once they grasp the idea of their friend not coming around.
Symptoms of grief in pets are generally categorized by groups including:
- Appetite changes: Most commonly, a pet may refuse to eat while they grieve. They might not enjoy the same food or treats that they once did, or may have no motivation to eat at all.
- Habitual changes: Your pet may change their preferred routine by sleeping, eating, and using the bathroom on a different schedule and with abnormal frequency.
- Behavior changes: Common changes in a pet’s disposition include destructive, aggressive, or somber behaviors. Grieving pets may take on some unwanted behaviors but it is crucial that you approach these changes delicately.
- Depression and anxiety in grieving pets: Your pet’s behavior is likely to change during the grieving process, but more serious conditions like depression and anxiety shouldn’t be ignored. These behaviors typically present as fear responses — shaking, wincing, and hiding or aggressive responses like resource guarding.
When to See a Vet About My Pet’s Grief?
Grief isn’t a medical condition, but it can lead to some dangerous effects if left unmonitored. Because pets often resort to self-destructive behavior when they are grieving, it can cause further complications down the line. With prolonged malnutrition and longer periods of sleep, a pet may neglect their own needs like grooming and using the bathroom, while also giving you less of an opportunity to care for them. Grief can quickly become a serious threat to their health and long-term well-being. If your pet is refusing to eat for days at a time, spending most of their time alone, or practicing irregular bathroom habits, a consultation with a veterinarian may be the most proactive course of action.
What Can I Do to Help My Pet Process Their Grief?
Watching your pet grieve can feel like a helpless experience, but the best thing you can offer them is your undivided support. When a pet is grieving the loss of their fur friend, they’re likely to feel confused and unsure about what their future looks like. This creates many of the unwanted behaviors and conditions like anxiety that pet parents notice their beloved four-legged friends enduring. To ease the pain and help your pet see a life beyond the grief, there are many supportive steps you can take.
Seeing the Body of Their Deceased Friend
This may not be practical for all losses, but in cases where you can allow your pet to see the body of their deceased friend, doing so is known to provide closure. Pets do not have the same perspective on change that people do, and they may never recognize that their fur friend passed on but rather believe that they left. This can create trust issues or anxiety in attached pets, so offering your pet the chance to see their friend one last time can be the visual they need to understand the reality of the situation.
Maintain Their Daily Schedule
Pets are creatures of habit that thrive on a daily schedule. When a pet passes, the other members of the household may have trouble committing to the same schedule. Motivating yourself to stick to the normal schedule can be a productive way to motivate your pet through their grief as well. Your pet will study your behavior to understand what the tone of the household is, so give them a sense of normalcy by keeping certain aspects of the day like meals, playtime, and walks the same.
Be Patient and Supportive
Grief is a long journey. Give your pet as much time as they need to process their mourning because rushing them through the experience can lead to long-term unwanted behavioral changes that affect the serenity of your household later. Offering constant support and being patient with their healing will communicate to your pet that they are in a safe place to feel what they need. Animals that feel threatened about healing can develop behaviors like resource guarding, aggression, and anxiety. A training facility like Greenlin Pet Resorts can hlp nurture your pup’s personality while preventing these habits from blooming.
Reinforce Good Behavior and Ignore Unwanted Behavior Unless it’s Dangerous
Your strategy for support while your pet grieves can shape how they act in the future. Typically, a pet owner would not be advised to ignore unwanted behavior because it can lead to a habit forming, but while a pet is grieving they may not respond well to traditional discipline.
Keep reinforcing good behaviors, but temporarily ignore unwanted behaviors that pose no danger to the pet or the household. Your pet may need the opportunity to misbehave while they are processing grief, and scolding them can ruin the serene environment you’re trying to build. If it is necessary that you intervene, try distracting them with other stimuli.
How Long Does Grief Last?
Every animal is different, so the mourning journey will not look the same for all pets. Each pet will approach loss differently, and the overwhelming realization attached to loss can take weeks or even months to process. Patience is key when supporting a grieving pet, as this journey is rarely linear. Consequently, this means a grieving pet making substantial progress can still relapse and fall back into their related mourning symptoms. Don’t rush the grieving process in your pet, and never hurry into expanding the family again before they’re ready. This mistake can lead to aggressive behavior and defensive habits like resource guarding. While it may be sad to watch, let them endure and process their own grief because helping them ignore it may create some intense underlying emotional effects.
You Are Your Pet’s Biggest and Most Supportive Ally Through Grief
Above any distraction or new activity that you can introduce into your pet’s routine, your love and constant, attentive care are what will get them through their grief. Pets lean on their owners when they feel unsure, fearful, and confused, and simply reminding them that you remain a constant in their lives can be enough to help you strengthen your emotional connection and help them face the process of walking through grief.